The Book Thief



  A SMALL SAMPLE OF SOME

  GIRL-WRITTEN WORDS

  That summer was a new beginning, a new end.

  When I look back, I remember my slippery

  hands of paint and the sound of Papa’s feet

  on Munich Street, and I know that a small

  piece of the summer of 1942 belonged to only

  one man. Who else would do some painting for

  the price of half a cigarette? That was Papa,

  that was typical, and I loved him.

  Every day when they worked together, he would tell Liesel his stories. There was the Great War and how his miserable handwriting helped save his life, and the day he met Mama. He said that she was beautiful once, and actually very quiet-spoken. “Hard to believe, I know, but absolutely true.” Each day, there was a story, and Liesel forgave him if he told the same one more than once.

  On other occasions, when she was daydreaming, Papa would dab her lightly with his brush, right between the eyes. If he misjudged and there was too much on it, a small path of paint would dribble down the side of her nose. She would laugh and try to return the favor, but Hans Hubermann was a hard man to catch out at work. It was there that he was most alive.

  Whenever they had a break, to eat or drink, he would play the accordion, and it was this that Liesel remembered best. Each morning, while Papa pushed or dragged the paint cart, Liesel carried the instrument. “Better that we leave the paint behind,” Hans told her, “than ever forget the music.” When they paused to eat, he would cut up the bread, smearing it with what little jam remained from the last ration card. Or he’d lay a small slice of meat on top of it. They would eat together, sitting on their cans of paint, and with the last mouthfuls still in the chewing stages, Papa would be wiping his fingers, unbuckling the accordion case.

  Traces of bread crumbs were in the creases of his overalls. Paint-specked hands made their way across the buttons and raked over the keys, or held on to a note for a while. His arms worked the bellows, giving the instrument the air it needed to breathe.

  Liesel would sit each day with her hands between her knees, in the long legs of daylight. She wanted none of those days to end, and it was always with disappointment that she watched the darkness stride forward.

  As far as the painting itself was concerned, probably the most interesting aspect for Liesel was the mixing. Like most people, she assumed her papa simply took his cart to the paint shop or hardware store and asked for the right color and away he went. She didn’t realize that most of the paint was in lumps, in the shape of a brick. It was then rolled out with an empty champagne bottle. (Champagne bottles, Hans explained, were ideal for the job, as their glass was slightly thicker than that of an ordinary bottle of wine.) Once that was completed, there was the addition of water, whiting, and glue, not to mention the complexities of matching the right color.

  The science of Papa’s trade brought him an even greater level of respect. It was well and good to share bread and music, but it was nice for Liesel to know that he was also more than capable in his occupation. Competence was attractive.

  One afternoon, a few days after Papa’s explanation of the mixing, they were working at one of the wealthier houses just east of Munich Street. Papa called Liesel inside in the early afternoon. They were just about to move on to another job when she heard the unusual volume in his voice.

  Once inside, she was taken to the kitchen, where two older women and a man sat on delicate, highly civilized chairs. The women were well dressed. The man had white hair and sideburns like hedges. Tall glasses stood on the table. They were filled with crackling liquid.

  “Well,” said the man, “here we go.”

  He took up his glass and urged the others to do the same.

  The afternoon had been warm. Liesel was slightly put off by the coolness of her glass. She looked at Papa for approval. He grinned and said, “Prost, Mädel—cheers, girl.” Their glasses chimed together and the moment Liesel raised it to her mouth, she was bitten by the fizzy, sickly sweet taste of champagne. Her reflexes forced her to spit straight onto her papa’s overalls, watching it foam and dribble. A shot of laughter followed from all of them, and Hans encouraged her to give it another try. On the second attempt she was able to swallow it, and enjoy the taste of a glorious broken rule. It felt great. The bubbles ate her tongue. They prickled her stomach. Even as they walked to the next job, she could feel the warmth of pins and needles inside her.

  Dragging the cart, Papa told her that those people claimed to have no money.

  “So you asked for champagne?”

  “Why not?” He looked across, and never had his eyes been so silver. “I didn’t want you thinking that champagne bottles are only used for rolling paint.” He warned her, “Just don’t tell Mama. Agreed?”

  “Can I tell Max?”

  “Sure, you can tell Max.”

  In the basement, when she wrote about her life, Liesel vowed that she would never drink champagne again, for it would never taste as good as it did on that warm afternoon in July.

  It was the same with accordions.

  Many times, she wanted to ask her papa if he might teach her to play, but somehow, something always stopped her. Perhaps an unknown intuition told her that she would never be able to play it like Hans Hubermann. Surely, not even the world’s greatest accordionists could compare. They could never be equal to the casual concentration on Papa’s face. Or there wouldn’t be a paintwork-traded cigarette slouched on the player’s lips. And they could never make a small mistake with a three-note laugh of hindsight. Not the way he could.

  At times, in that basement, she woke up tasting the sound of the accordion in her ears. She could feel the sweet burn of champagne on her tongue.

  Sometimes she sat against the wall, longing for the warm finger of paint to wander just once more down the side of her nose, or to watch the sandpaper texture of her papa’s hands.

  If only she could be so oblivious again, to feel such love without knowing it, mistaking it for laughter and bread with only the scent of jam spread out on top of it.

  It was the best time of her life.

  But it was bombing carpet.

  Make no mistake.

  Bold and bright, a trilogy of happiness would continue for summer’s duration and into autumn. It would then be brought abruptly to an end, for the brightness had shown suffering the way.

  Hard times were coming.

  Like a parade.

  DUDEN DICTIONARY MEANING #1

  Zufiedenheit—Happiness:

  Coming from happy —enjoying

  pleasure and contentment.

  Related words: joy, gladness,

  feeling fortunate or prosperous.

  THE TRILOGY

  While Liesel worked, Rudy ran.

  He did laps of Hubert Oval, ran around the block, and raced almost everyone from the bottom of Himmel Street to Frau Diller’s, giving varied head starts.

  On a few occasions, when Liesel was helping Mama in the kitchen, Rosa would look out the window and say, “What’s that little Saukerl up to this time? All that running out there.”

  Liesel would move to the window. “At least he hasn’t painted himself black again.”

  “Well, that’s something, isn’t it?”

  RUDY’S REASONS

  In the middle of August, a Hitler Youth

  carnival was being held, and Rudy was

  intent on winning four events: the 1500,

  400, 200, and of course, the 100. He liked

  his new Hitler Youth leaders and wanted to

  please them, and he wanted to show his old

  friend Franz Deutscher a thing or two.

  • • •

  “Four gold medals,” he said to Liesel one afternoon when she did laps with him at Hubert Oval. “Like Jesse Owens back in ′36.”

  “You’re not still obsessed with him, are you?”

  Rudy’s feet rhymed with his breathing. “Not really, but it would be nice, would
n’t it? It would show all those bastards who said I was crazy. They’d see that I wasn’t so stupid after all.”

  “But can you really win all four events?”

  They slowed to a stop at the end of the track, and Rudy placed his hands on his hips. “I have to.”

  For six weeks, he trained, and when the day of the carnival arrived in mid-August, the sky was hot-sunned and cloudless. The grass was overrun with Hitler Youths, parents, and a glut of brown-shirted leaders. Rudy Steiner was in peak condition.

  “Look,” he pointed out. “There’s Deutscher.”

  Through the clusters of crowd, the blond epitome of Hitler Youth standards was giving instructions to two members of his division. They were nodding and occasionally stretching. One of them shielded his eyes from the sun like a salute.

  “You want to say hello?” Liesel asked.

  “No thanks. I’ll do that later.”

  When I’ve won.

  The words were not spoken, but they were definitely there, somewhere between Rudy’s blue eyes and Deutscher’s advisory hands.

  There was the obligatory march around the grounds.

  The anthem.

  Heil Hitler.

  Only then could they begin.

  • • •

  When Rudy’s age group was called for the 1500, Liesel wished him luck in a typically German manner.

  “Hals und Beinbruch, Saukerl.”

  She’d told him to break his neck and leg.

  Boys collected themselves on the far side of the circular field. Some stretched, some focused, and the rest were there because they had to be.

  Next to Liesel, Rudy’s mother, Barbara, sat with her youngest children. A thin blanket was brimming with kids and loosened grass. “Can you see Rudy?” she asked them. “He’s the one on the far left.” Barbara Steiner was a kind woman whose hair always looked recently combed.

  “Where?” said one of the girls. Probably Bettina, the youngest. “I can’t see him at all.”

  “That last one. No, not there. There.”

  They were still in the identification process when the starter’s gun gave off its smoke and sound. The small Steiners rushed to the fence.

  For the first lap, a group of seven boys led the field. On the second, it dropped to five, and on the next lap, four. Rudy was the fourth runner on every lap until the last. A man on the right was saying that the boy coming second looked the best. He was the tallest. “You wait,” he told his nonplussed wife. “With two hundred left, he’ll break away.” The man was wrong.

  A gargantuan brown-shirted official informed the group that there was one lap to go. He certainly wasn’t suffering under the ration system. He called out as the lead pack crossed the line, and it was not the second boy who accelerated, but the fourth. And he was two hundred meters early.

  Rudy ran.

  He did not look back at any stage.

  Like an elastic rope, he lengthened his lead until any thought of someone else winning snapped altogether. He took himself around the track as the three runners behind him fought each other for the scraps. In the homestretch, there was nothing but blond hair and space, and when he crossed the line, he didn’t stop. He didn’t raise his arm. There wasn’t even a bent-over relief. He simply walked another twenty meters and eventually looked over his shoulder to watch the others cross the line.

  On the way back to his family, he met first with his leaders and then with Franz Deutscher. They both nodded.

  “Steiner.”

  “Deutscher.”

  “Looks like all those laps I gave you paid off, huh?”

  “Looks like it.”

  He would not smile until he’d won all four.

  A POINT FOR LATER REFERENCE

  Not only was Rudy recognized now as a good

  school student. He was a gifted athlete, too.

  For Liesel, there was the 400. She finished seventh, then fourth in her heat of the 200. All she could see up ahead were the hamstrings and bobbing ponytails of the girls in front. In the long jump, she enjoyed the sand packed around her feet more than any distance, and the shot put wasn’t her greatest moment, either. This day, she realized, was Rudy’s.

  In the 400 final, he led from the backstretch to the end, and he won the 200 only narrowly.

  “You getting tired?” Liesel asked him. It was early afternoon by then.

  “Of course not.” He was breathing heavily and stretching his calves. “What are you talking about, Saumensch? What the hell would you know?”

  When the heats of the 100 were called, he rose slowly to his feet and followed the trail of adolescents toward the track. Liesel went after him. “Hey, Rudy.” She pulled at his shirtsleeve. “Good luck.”

  “I’m not tired,” he said.

  “I know.”

  He winked at her.

  He was tired.

  In his heat, Rudy slowed to finish second, and after ten minutes of other races, the final was called. Two other boys had looked formidable, and Liesel had a feeling in her stomach that Rudy could not win this one. Tommy Müller, who’d finished second to last in his heat, stood with her at the fence. “He’ll win it,” he informed her.

  “I know.”

  No, he won’t.

  When the finalists reached the starting line, Rudy dropped to his knees and began digging starting holes with his hands. A balding brownshirt wasted no time in walking over and telling him to cut it out. Liesel watched the adult finger, pointing, and she could see the dirt falling to the ground as Rudy brushed his hands together.

  When they were called forward, Liesel tightened her grip on the fence. One of the boys false-started; the gun was shot twice. It was Rudy. Again, the official had words with him and the boy nodded. Once more and he was out.

  Set for the second time, Liesel watched with concentration, and for the first few seconds, she could not believe what she was seeing. Another false start was recorded and it was the same athlete who had done it. In front of her, she created a perfect race, in which Rudy trailed but came home to win in the last ten meters. What she actually saw, however, was Rudy’s disqualification. He was escorted to the side of the track and was made to stand there, alone, as the remainder of boys stepped forward.

  They lined up and raced.

  A boy with rusty brown hair and a big stride won by at least five meters.

  Rudy remained.

  • • •

  Later, when the day was complete and the sun was taken from Himmel Street, Liesel sat with her friend on the footpath.

  They talked about everything else, from Franz Deutscher’s face after the 1500 to one of the eleven-year-old girls having a tantrum after losing the discus.

  Before they proceeded to their respective homes, Rudy’s voice reached over and handed Liesel the truth. For a while, it sat on her shoulder, but a few thoughts later, it made its way to her ear.

  RUDY’S VOICE

  “I did it on purpose.”

  When the confession registered, Liesel asked the only question available. “But why, Rudy? Why did you do it?”

  He was standing with a hand on his hip, and he did not answer. There was nothing but a knowing smile and a slow walk that lolled him home. They never talked about it again.

  For Liesel’s part, she often wondered what Rudy’s answer might have been had she pushed him. Perhaps three medals had shown what he’d wanted to show, or he was afraid to lose that final race. In the end, the only explanation she allowed herself to hear was an inner teenage voice.

  “Because he isn’t Jesse Owens.”

  Only when she got up to leave did she notice the three imitation-gold medals sitting next to her. She knocked on the Steiners’ door and held them out to him. “You forgot these.”

  “No, I didn’t.” He closed the door and Liesel took the medals home. She walked with them down to the basement and told Max about her friend Rudy Steiner.

  “He truly is stupid,” she concluded.

  “Clearly,” Max agreed, bu
t I doubt he was fooled.

  They both started work then, Max on his sketchbook, Liesel on The Dream Carrier. She was in the latter stages of the novel, where the young priest was doubting his faith after meeting a strange and elegant woman.

  When she placed it facedown on her lap, Max asked when she thought she’d finish it.

  “A few days at the most.”

  “Then a new one?”

  The book thief looked at the basement ceiling. “Maybe, Max.” She closed the book and leaned back. “If I’m lucky.”

  THE NEXT BOOK

  It’s not the Duden Dictionary and

  Thesaurus, as you might be expecting.

  No, the dictionary comes at the end of this small trilogy, and this is only the second installment. This is the part where Liesel finishes The Dream Carrier and steals a story called A Song in the Dark. As always, it was taken from the mayor’s house. The only difference was that she made her way to the upper part of town alone. There was no Rudy that day.

  It was a morning rich with both sun and frothy clouds.

  Liesel stood in the mayor’s library with greed in her fingers and book titles at her lips. She was comfortable enough on this occasion to run her fingers along the shelves—a short replay of her original visit to the room—and she whispered many of the titles as she made her way along.

  Under the Cherry Tree.

  The Tenth Lieutenant.

  Typically, many of the titles tempted her, but after a good minute or two in the room, she settled for A Song in the Dark, most likely because the book was green, and she did not yet own a book of that color. The engraved writing on the cover was white, and there was a small insignia of a flute between the title and the name of the author. She climbed with it from the window, saying thanks on her way out.

  Without Rudy, she felt a good degree of absence, but on that particular morning, for some reason, the book thief was happiest alone. She went about her work and read the book next to the Amper River, far enough away from the occasional headquarters of Viktor Chemmel and the previous gang of Arthur Berg. No one came, no one interrupted, and Liesel read four of the very short chapters of A Song in the Dark, and she was happy.